Tony McDade. Breonna Taylor. Manuel Ellis. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd.
I am writing to you in my capacity as president of our organization to lift up these names and speak to the rebellion taking place in our midst across the United States and around the world. I do so in the last month of two tumultuous years during which I have had the honor to serve as ASA’s president-elect and president. Those two years have been marked by triumphs and tragedies and filled with joys and sorrow. While the ASA’s executive committee and national council are, respectively, the bodies empowered to issue statements and resolutions on behalf of the association, I have felt compelled by the murder of these and other African Americans in the midst of a pandemic to share my thoughts on how this explosive rupture of racial fault lines demands our attention and our action.
Over the past days and weeks, the public has learned the names that opened this statement because they are the most recent victims of a nation built on white supremacy, genocide, and colonialism. Once again, the system we live under has revealed in profound manner how it is served and protected by repressive policing that privileges private wealth over human life. Once again, the unequal burden has fallen on Black America to issue a national wake up call to remedy the intersecting plagues at the core of society. The New York Times could fill its front page every day for the next year with the names and stories of those falsely arrested, brutalized, or killed with impunity throughout US history and never come close to listing them all.
And, still, the list keeps growing. Italia Kelly. James Scurlock. David McAtee. Dorian Murrell. Sean Monterrosa. With every passing day, more families are forced to grieve for their loved ones killed under suspicious circumstances during the uprising. The numbers of those maimed and murdered continue to swell as the police and right-wing vigilantes respond to protests against police brutality and white supremacy with more and heightened acts of abuse and repression. Though we must respect the distinctiveness of the present actions, there is at least one clear parallel with the late 1960s rebellions. The primary cause of bodily injury is a nationwide police riot by militarized forces seeking to intimidate not only protestors but also journalists, bystanders, and entire communities.
No one should doubt that these problems predate the Trump presidency. But the contradictions have become too glaring for growing numbers to ignore. When armed white men stormed a state capital, they were held up as a model of protest by the same president who condemned Colin Kaepernick and others for taking a knee. Trump and his enablers in the Justice Department and Congress have fabricated a war on “domestic terrorism” and invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 to threaten the use of military force against US citizens and residents. Coming from a man who has not only encouraged police brutality but also honored war crimes as the highest form of service to the MAGA nation, this should be taken as no less than an outright embrace of fascist rule.
These facts make it more evident than ever that we must defund the police, prisons, ICE, and military in order to maximize our investment in human needs and social justice. However, transforming structures cannot occur without simultaneously decolonizing our collective mind and transforming our ways of thinking. In this regard, those based in academia have particular lessons to learn from organizers on the ground creating grassroots models of community solidarity rooted in de-escalation, nonviolent conflict resolution, and transformative justice. We must especially pay attention to the women, queer, trans*, disabled, and formerly incarcerated persons of color at the cutting-edge of these struggles. Every person who says the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” should be sure to read the policy platform and call to action from the Movement for Black Lives.
A half-century ago, the radical visions of the Black movement fostered new models of organizing for self-defense within communities and solidarity across racial categories and national borders. The struggle against the police as an occupying army particularly galvanized the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, Brown Berets, Young Lords, and Red Guards. Today, we see new bonds of global racial solidarity being consciously forged. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s “Statement of Support for George Floyd” reminds us of the deadly connection between state violence and the battle for clean water among Black and Indigenous peoples, opening our eyes to the promise of what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg) calls “constellations of coresistance.” I am one of many Asian Americans challenged in this moment to commit what Soya Jung has called “model minority mutiny,” as inspired by activist groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving.
While we demand an end to the anti-Asian hate crimes caused by xenophobic scapegoating, we also know that a structural response to white supremacy in the United States must address its foundations in antiblackness and anti-Indigeneity. According to the department’s own statistics, the Minneapolis police use force against African Americans at 7 times the rate of whites. We should not hesitate to denounce the participation of MPD officer Tou Thao in the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in concert with Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, as well as the reactionary ideologies at the core American culture that predicate Asian American advancement on Black oppression. We must simultaneously work within our communities and lift up the voices of mothers like Youa Vang, whose son, Fong Lee, was killed by the Minneapolis police. Vang recently delivered an impassioned expression of solidarity with George Floyd’s family at the Hmong for Black Lives rally.
Of course, we cannot forget that we remain in the midst of both a deadly, global pandemic and an economic depression unrivaled since the 1930s. By confirmed count, nearly 400,000 lives have been lost around the world and over 110,000 in the United States alone. Trump’s America lies at the center of the Covid-19 pandemic because of the systematic and intentional disregard for human life. For every 100,000 African Americans in the US, 55 have already lost their lives to Covid-19. Black folk have died at nearly 2.5 times the rate of whites. A few weeks ago, CNN reported that the Navajo Nation “surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capital coronavirus infection rate in the US.” Already deprived of human rights, Latinx asylum seekers have been denied basic health protections in detention.
The mortal threat of Covid-19 has not abated, and each demonstration is a potential super-spreader event. But there is no vaccine against state violence and white supremacist oppression. We should not be surprised, therefore, to see tens of thousands taking to the streets, when they are already haunted by the specter of premature death. Moreover, unemployment and the burden and risk inherent in “essential work” have fallen disproportionately on those who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, working-class, and immigrant. The scenes of workers scrambling to use makeshift masks on the job, while protestors are met by riot squads decked out like Stormtroopers, have served a pedagogical function. The need for health care and survival programs for oppressed communities will continue to skyrocket as the federal government skews its trickle-down bailout toward the priorities of Wall Street.
For those whose eyes were not opened wide enough, the rebellions have taught a critical lesson: When governance becomes a rationale for oppression, it is rational for people to become ungovernable.
James and Grace Lee Boggs offered a salient definition of rebellion in their book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974):
Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution, but it is not revolution. It is an important stage because it represents the “standing up,” the assertion of their humanity on the part of the oppressed. Rebellions inform both the oppressed and everybody else that a situation has become intolerable. They establish a form of communication among the oppressed themselves and at the same time open the eyes and ears of people who have been blind and deaf to the fate of their fellow citizens. Rebellions break the threads that have been holding the system together and throw into question the legitimacy and the supposed permanence of existing institutions. They shake up old values so that relations between individuals and between groups within society are unlikely ever to be the same again. The inertia of the society has been interrupted.
We must be mindful of where we stand in history. The rebellions of the late 1960s occurred at the height of American power and the peak of liberal reform. They exposed the hypocrisy of a system that preached equality for all but delivered incremental advances that were overshadowed by rampant police brutality, severe class disparities, entrenched housing segregation, and heteropatriarchal violence.
As the establishment’s response to the rebellions, the Kerner Commission report comprised the most concerted effort to stabilize the system through proposals to fulfill the promises of liberal reform. It called for “unprecedented levels of funding” to make eradicating racism the nation’s highest priority. But it was immediately cast aside, even by President Johnson who commissioned it, paving the way for neoliberalism and mass incarceration to widen the social divides and intensify exploitation and dispossession. Since then, the substantive gains of the Civil Rights Movement have been systematically undermined by the assault on public education, the expansion of repressive policing under the banner of the “War on Crime,” the gutting of workers’ rights, the Federalist Society’s takeover of the courts, and right-wing schemes like extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression to nullify voting rights.
Today’s rebellions are symbols of an empire in decline and a system in crisis. As such, they carry both a new sense of possibility and an incredible sense of danger during this age of transition and uncertainty. A wide swath of the U.S. populace that naturalized the spoils of gendered, white, and imperial privilege—to the point that these became inherent traits of American citizenship—has been whipped into a moral panic as the emerging nonwhite majority changes the face of cities, popular culture, and politics. Some are well funded. Many are well armed. Aside from a small band of “Never Trumpers,” the Republican Party’s leadership has implicitly and explicitly endorsed rather than confront these increasingly dangerous elements of society. They seem intent to go to the grave with Trump, and it is foolhardy to assume that even a decisive electoral defeat of Trump will guarantee a peaceful transition of power. Such is the gravity of this time on the clock of the world.
Where does higher education go from here? While the pandemic has unleashed a new fiscal crisis and “shock doctrine” response, it has affirmed the key place of the university as a site of struggle. Scholarly research and expertise have proven indispensable to public health, promoting general wellbeing and exposing glaring inequities, while challenging and answering the gross incompetence of government officials. Upholding the basic tenets of higher education for the post COIVD world means we must continue to defend science in the public interest, affirm courageous and compassionate teaching, protect the status of graduate students and contingent faculty, and make college free and accessible for all. But these are baseline goals that do not even begin to address the glaring contradictions within academia.
I am mindful that engaged scholars can offer context, perspective, and pointed questions, but that we cannot claim the ability to lead or guide movements that must emerge and evolve through their own struggles. Those struggles belong to us, after all, only insofar as we join them. I am also mindful of the fact that statements are a dime a dozen these days. Particularly when coming from the mouths of academics, statements often read as tiresome and trite—not unlike the performative acts of cops kneeling with protestors or mayors pledging to do better… only to follow up with teargas, batons, and mass arrests.
As such, it is incumbent on those of us connected to academia to exert as much influence, defy conventional standards, disrupt the oppressive status quo, and foster substantive change in the places where we can immediately register an impact. Recognizing the patterns of exclusion and complicity that are ingrained in the history of our field variously known as “American Studies,” “American Civilization,” and “American Culture,” we must constantly and consciously hold our own organization accountable to the expectations we set for others.
The following are ten examples of concrete steps leaders of higher education, particularly those in predominantly white institutions, can take to address structures that reproduce antiblackness and white supremacy:
1. Every institutional statement rightly expressing remorse or outrage at the death of George Floyd and other victims of racist violence must include substantive steps that institutions will take to confront antiblackness and white supremacy in admissions, hiring, retention, research, curriculum, fundraising, alumni and community relations, and athletics. We must remember that the Third World Liberation Front strikes fought not only to establish Ethnic Studies colleges but also for open admissions and accountability to tribal communities and working-class communities of color beyond the campus.
2. Institutions should fully research and provide reparations for their active role and complicity in slavery and Jim Crow. Land acknowledgements should include substantive measures for institutions to make restitution for their active role and complicity in genocide, colonialism, and the dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples. Doing this work correctly means recognizing the grounded expertise of academic and community-based Black, Indigenous, and Ethnic Studies scholars, as well as providing employment and compensation that properly values this expertise.
3. All schools should require intersectional knowledge of race and ethnicity to graduate. But we can push much further. Public university systems, like the University of California and University of Texas, should take the lead in making coursework on race and social justice required for admission of first-year and transfer students. This would compel immediate changes in high school and K-12 curriculum with a spillover effect on writing and publishing.
4. Following the demands of student activists at the University of Minnesota, institutions should renounce ties and contracts with law enforcement agencies that systematically promote state violence and discrimination. Campus security forces should not be armed, should not have arrest power, and should not collaborate with ICE. The concept of the campus as a “sanctuary” to protect undocumented immigrants provides a model for interrupting state repression more broadly. Degree-granting programs should not serve as proxies for police academies. Instead, the university should function as an incubator for alternative models of conflict resolution rooted in abolitionist principles. Institutions must “ban the box” for university-based jobs and remove barriers to access, aid, and employment for currently and formerly incarcerated students and other justice-involved persons.
5. Institutions need independent, external assessments of their leadership and administrative structures to eradicate antiblackness and white supremacy. Amy Cooper of the Central Park 911 scandal was a product of elite universities, which are filled with thousands like her in positions of power and influence read to weaponize white fragility at a momentʻs notice and perpetuate structural violence on a routine basis. The constant gaslighting and retaliation against those who challenge these structures must cease. As many have noted, the toothless “diversity and inclusion” statement or plan has become the academic version of sending “thoughts and prayers” to victims of mass shootings.
6. Institutions must end the use of sham internal investigations into racist and heteropatriarchal discrimination and violence. As we have seen with the police, institutions are generally incapable of reforming themselves and quickly succumb to obvious conflicts of interest. Any institution that is not annually documenting the number of racial discrimination complaints it has sustained and remediated is almost certainly not taking any effective measures against institutional racism. Instead of top-down control by administrative appointees, offices conducting Title IX and civil rights investigations should involve direct input from diverse members of the university and conduct independent investigations led by mutually trusted third-party experts on equity for members of protected classes.
7. Institutions must cease the repression and silencing of activists and protestors on their own campuses. A growing number of students have been subjected to arrest or academic discipline for demonstrating against entrenched structures of antiblackness and white supremacy. Students of color are often the ones rendered most vulnerable, including those from the #NotAgainSU movement led by Black students at Syracuse in February 2020 and Latinx students who protested the presence of Border Patrol at the University of Arizona in March 2019. Graduate student workers who struck for a cost of living adjustment at UC Santa Cruz have launched an academic boycott of the UC system in response to retaliatory firings.
8. Institutions must defend academic freedom and free speech rights when they are threatened by governmental bodies and private actors from outside the university. The attempt to silence pro-Palestinian scholars and students at UCLA, my alma mater, is but one among many disturbing examples. We must end the double standard that exists within institutions that protect the First Amendment rights of white supremacists, while allowing or endorsing campaigns that seek retaliation against dissident voices.
9. Institutions must prioritize the health not only of their own workforce but also the communities surrounding their campuses. It is not enough for colleges and universities to be good neighbors. Those that run hospitals have a particular responsibility to devote resources to eliminating health disparities. We can learn from the community activists who won a protracted campaign for the University of Chicago to open an adult Level I trauma center in 2018, the first on the city’s South Side in three decades. Such measures constitute concrete means to reverse the displacement and dispossession caused by institutions that have directly and indirectly advanced gentrification.
10. Institutions must take steps to reverse the corporatization of higher education. Wealthy universities have become sites of obscene privilege where a senior administrative appointment serves as an entry ticket to the 1 percent. Despite some visionary exceptions worth highlighting, we have increasingly witnessed the rule of higher education by these 1 percenters driven by an alliance with the billionaire investor class. Colleges and universities increasingly resemble hedge funds and real estate investment trusts that value students as collateral in the form of future tuition payments. Institutions must divest from prisons, fossil fuels, and other toxic industries that aggravate systemic oppression and cause underlying conditions of societal inequity.
This list is neither meant to be exhaustive nor a ranked list of demands made in the voice of communities beyond the ASA. It is only meant to illustrate measures that higher education institutions can take to demonstrate they are serious about meaningful social change and equity.
As we strive to meet the immense challenges of this moment, I draw continuous inspiration from the dedicated work of the ASA’s socially conscious members and supporters. For our 2019 conference in Hawaiʻi, we centered the radical intellectual work and activism of Indigenous women and women of color at sites like Mauna Kea to advance the concept of “building the revolution as we fight.” Many of you answered our call to resist the destructive, genocidal effects of this rotting system, while acknowledging the imperative to create alternative means of survival and models of community from the ground up to address social problems that those in power cannot and will not solve.
Working with president-elect Dylan Rodriguez, the 2020 Program Committee has crafted a phenomenal agenda for Baltimore under the timely theme, “Creativity Within Revolt.” As their call cogently stated, “Revolt is a condition of being in ‘America’ for those who refuse to (or simply cannot) tolerate its normalized domestic and global productions of state and extra-state violence. Beyond notions of social justice, progressive electoral and policy change, or funded and publicly recognized grass roots resistance, revolt expresses a will toward collective being that radically challenges, displaces, and potentially abolishes life-altering, people-and-planet destroying relations of dominance.”
For a collective of scholars, artists, community organizers, and educators of many kinds, the ASA annual meeting serves as one of our most crucial moments of engagement, interaction, and solidarity. Given the volatile state of the world, we can’t know for certain whether or when we will be able to meet again. Those with understandable concerns about the status of our 2020 conference should know that we have suspended our pre-registration requirement and will not in any way penalize those who need to withdraw.
But amid these perilous and shifting conditions, we must struggle to find ways to stay connected, informed, and relevant. We invite our members and friends to watch, discuss, and debate featured sessions on vital topics like intersectionality, climate justice, and Indigenous resurgence from our 2019 conference and prior events through the ASA’s YouTube channel. For example, we honored Maori scholar-activist, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and her monumental book, Decolonizing Methodologies, whose examples of dialogic research and teaching based on relationships that center reciprocity and mutuality are particularly instructive now. We also encourage you to follow the ASA’s Freedom Courses, a new series of virtual plenaries that began last month with a panel on YouTube examining “Mutual Aid” as a people’s movement.
As we look to educate ourselves and respond to the endless requests to educate others about the roots of our systemic problems, I also believe that the engaged scholarship of ASA participants is the perfect complement to the messages coming from the grassroots. For example, the John Hope Franklin Prize honors the most outstanding publications in our field. In the past two years, it has been awarded to Black Studies scholars Imani Perry (May We Forever Stand) and Kelly Lytle Hernández (City of Inmates), whose work confronts the centrality of white supremacy and state repression to US history, while recognizing how Black struggle and creativity have illuminated liberatory possibilities for a multitude of peoples.
We can also point to the guiding light from recipients of the ASA’s Angela Y. Davis Prize for those have applied or used their scholarship for the public good: Haunani-Kay Trask, Barbara Ransby, Steven Salaita, Robin D. G. Kelley, Rosa-Linda Fregoso, George Lipsitz, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. And we should, of course, add Angela Y. Davis herself to that list. The time for calling these and other visionary scholars and activists “ahead of their time” is over. Read their work and learn from their praxis. These are the times of radical awakening for which they have prepared us.
In closing, part of what prompted me to write this message is so I could signal a series of steps the ASA will be taking to listen to, learn from, and support the advancing struggles of this period. We must vow to do more to recognize those who are continually working to confront and abolish state violence. As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions, criticism, and participation. As the calendar moves forward and I begin my year as ASA’s past president, I know that Dylan, then Cathy Schlund-Vials will take this work to higher levels. Thank you for your attention, your work, and for being part of ASA.
Another world is necessary. Another world is possible. Another world is already being born.
American Studies Association
Community announcements and events are services that are offered by the ASA to support the organizing efforts of critical constituency groups. They do not reflect the decisions or actions of the association’s governance bodies, the National Council or Executive Committee. Questions should be directed to the committee, caucus, or chapter that has authored and posted this notice.